Was Blair’s Labour programme more working class than Corbyn’s? No, of course it bloody wasn’t

In recent weeks there has been an attempt to pitch Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party as one predicated on the votes and sentiments of the urban middle class by the ‘moderate’ wing of the party, who are running an unending eulogy for Tony Blair in the process. The basis for this argument is as follows:

1. They were mostly student champagne socialist types. The kind of people at UCL now refusing to pay rent on single rooms which at the lowest end cost £542.36 per month. Sure they could afford it if they stopped guzzling bottles of Krug of course.

2. Corbyn represents a constituency (Islington North) full of hipsters, students, and lefty lawyers with a weekly podcast about their bicycle, whilst also having been the beneficiary of an independent school education. Unlike Tony Blair who represented George Formby’s flat cap, and graduated from Barnsley technical college with a BTEC in pigeon racing.

3. Blair’s position and policy foundation was one based on realism and the pragmatic concerns of working class people, such as introducing Private Finance Initiatives to the NHS which are now crippling hospitals across the country. Corbyn’s is based on mad ideas like nationalisation of vital public services, the kind of ideas only found in peasant socialist countries like the Netherlands and France.

In short, all of this is nonsense. Unadulterated opportunism from a set of self-entitled political activists and commentators who scraped a 2:1 in political science and now believe they know the one way, the only way, to win elections.

Corbyn in his moment of victory

Here’s why:

1. Let’s look at the data:

Corbyn received 59.5% of the vote, winning 251,417 votes. The total number of votes cast in the election was 422,664. Among party members (245,520 voters) he received 49.6% of the vote, among affiliates (mostly trade union voters equalling 71,546 voters) 57.6% of the vote, and among the controversial (broadening democracy is only non-controversial when it’s in Iraq) registered supporters (105,598 voters) who paid £3 for the pleasure he won 83.7% of the vote.

That’s a lot of middle-class urbanites who joined the party, paid £3 to vote, or signed up for their affiliated union to elect a man who was relatively obscure even a few months before and help him win in every single category.

If we move the question more keenly towards how working class voters in general see Corbyn now he is leader then it is impossible to say that at this moment in time the result would be good. Broaden that out somewhat however and replace the name Corbyn with any political leader and you will get a negative result overall. More interestingly still a recent Panelbase poll found that when asked ‘Who would make you more likely to vote Labour?’ the results were Jeremy Corbyn 28% Tony Blair: 31%. Hardly a resounding victory for a three time election winner against a man who has led the party for less than six months.

The claim that most of the new members who have joined since Corbyn’s leadership are ‘high-status’ urban dwellers seems to have some veracity, yet surely this is simply a comment on the way politics is conducted in this country, and how for so long the fundamental concerns of working class people were ignored to the point at which such people felt politics was not for them? That is not going to be rectified overnight by the election of Corbyn.

We can clearly dismiss the idea that Corbyn’s rise to power was on the back of Goldsmiths art students, and in regards to working class popularity it would be a fair and measured statement to say that no one in UK politics is banging down the doors of the Rovers Return just now. If this is the best attack so called ‘moderates’ can muster then Corbyn’s stay in power will last quite some time yet.

2. It cannot be denied that Corbyn is another privately educated leader, a demographic that dominates positions of major influence in our country’s politics, but that is even truer of Blair, as such it is a moot point in comparison. Corbyn does have the notable honour of not being Oxbridge educated at least, a factor which dominates our Parliament with just under 30% of MPs having attended one of the big two in the last parliament. Given so many of those who are targeting Corbyn on the charges of being a champagne socialist are disciples of the Blairite Progress wing paid for by Lord Sainsbury, I think it is safe to say this criticism has more than a whiff of opportunism.

On to Islington North, now this is a persistent one. Very clearly this is a lie. Islington in general has one of the highest rates child poverty in the country and this is mostly concentrated in Corbyn’s constituency. Further to this, Islington is the 14th most deprived local authority in England hardly what you would call a constituency dripping in wealth and out of touch voters. The constituency also contains exceedingly expensive homes of course, often inhabited by the sort of aspirational left leaning voters Blair did so much to court, which makes me wonder why now Corbyn is a leader such high income earners are in for denunciation from the Mandelson’s of this world? Opportunism again? Surely not…

3. Here we must both understand what working class now means, if anything, and which policies such people tend to support.

As we all know the working class died out with the advent of smartphones and games consoles, so is the resplendent wealth of even the lowest earners in our society. Had Marxist advocates of redistribution in the early 20th century known class would be abolished once average income reached £26,500 p/a they may not have bothered, after all such an income could afford you a one bedroom flat in Leith, Edinburgh on a £100,000 mortgage. Assuming you don’t bother having more than one child and they are alright on the sofa after the age of six, you too can join the great British middle class.

Tony Blair telling those who elected Corbyn to ‘get a heart transplant’

In 2013 the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 60% of people see themselves as working class. Without investigating too deeply how people understand that term, and how much it is a cultural concept, we can at least assume a lot of people felt their hard work was not rewarding them with sufficient financial benefits to feel as if they are middle class. Once we accept this then the idea that your first concern should be attracting middle class votes, as working class ones are locked in, becomes somewhat suspect. It often felt the New Labour technique to protect their base was to roll out John Prescott and Alan Johnson to talk about how much they like the football. I can say proudly that in the opening months of his leadership Corbyn visited my hometown of Scunthorpe to speak to steelworkers whose jobs are under threat. That’s working class engagement, being there not only for those who might vote for you, but being seen to care about those who always did. If any examples of Blair doing something similar exists I would like to see them.

Immigration is where Corbyn’s class detractors have a point, even if data does suggest attitudes to this variable are more about age than class. Thus far his leadership has dealt nobly with the issue of refugees traversing Europe and treacherous seas, however – this accounts for a small proportion of the new arrivals to the UK. As a party we are avoiding immigration as a topic because Corbyn’s team has seen the same statistics we all have. Immigration was mentioned by 46% of respondents a core concern in a recent poll, making it the top issue overall. In our traditional heartlands immigration is the topic we are further away from a significant and vocal proportion of our voters than on any other issue. If Corbyn wishes to pitch himself as burgeoning voice for the ignored working class he will have to tackle this issue head on and begin a campaign to convince such voters that immigration is not only a benefit to our economy, but a fundamental part of what makes us remarkable as a country.

During Blair’s time in power and the few years that were book ended by Gordon Brown it lost five million votes. This cannot be attributed purely to the migration of Labour’s core working class vote, most obviously because the middle class has grown in that time. What we can say however is that the net effect of Blair’s time in office was to lose working class votes with each subsequent election, by 2005 on a grand scale. Where did most of these voters go during that period? The Liberal Democrats. The recession of 2008 increased the number of working class voters going Tory in 2010 – something they largely maintained in 2015, though by this time Labour had regained plenty of those Lib Dem voters. That clearly suggests there is a significant number of working class and younger low income voters who consistently move left/centre-left.

On policy we can see in the data that when asked which issues are most important to them and their family the consistent differences between the two general class blocs are:

  • Working class voters deem the economy the most important issue, but they are 9% less likely to cite it than middle class voters.
  • They are 6% less likely to be concerned about tax issues.
  • Welfare and benefits is a concern for 24% of working class voters, as opposed to 9% for middle class voters.
  • 21% of working class voters say immigration is a concern for them and their family, only 13% of middle class voters say so.

If we take the above as intuitive of some elusive working class consciousness, then I dare say the party best representing working class concerns in the last election were UKIP.

Let’s break it down to more specific issues however:

  • Working class people are 10% more likely to favour government intervention in the rental sector – a policy Corbyn approves of, Blair opposed.
  • 70% of working class voters, and as it happens 74% of middle class voters, are in favour of the government controlling rail prices – a policy Corbyn approves of, and Blair opposed.
  • On maintaining the NHS as a state run entity, 84% in both social grades agreed. A policy Blair actively drew back, and again….Corbyn approves of.
  • 68% of working class voters feel the railways should be nationalised, and 71% believe the same about energy. Again…well, you get the idea.

The conclusion here is overwhelming. On a great many issues that the general public, and particularly working class voters, tack left on – Blair tacked right. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand appears to closely align with both the core Labour vote and a wider working class electorate on many issues of public service provision and economic policy. I am beginning to get the feeling proponents of the Islingtonian prosecco proletarian image have not really looked at the facts.

The wider point here is simple. Corbyn’s leadership should be defined and appreciated under its own merits, and not those of a declining party dogma that had its day in the sun, albeit an electorally successful day. Blair did a lot of important things to take children out of poverty and increase educational opportunities for working class kids (including myself). That cannot, and should not, be denied.

Corbyn at the Durham Miner’s Gala

The argument that the Labour Party is a machine for the winning of elections first, and a vehicle for moderate social change second, has been lost. Not only did this thesis fail to perform in the 2010 leadership election, it was utterly embarrassed in the 2015 leadership contest (I should know, I wrote this imploring people to vote for Andy Burnham)

Both of these leaders wish to bring along a politically invested middle class, the difference is one did it by acceding to most of their often short sighted concerns, the other hopes to do so by exampling the necessity of serious social change.

Let us not forget that Blair’s New Labour was famously built around the idea that ‘everyone is middle class now’, and if they were not then they certainly wanted to be. A phenomenon I did not really recognise until I came to university and realised that Blair and Mandelson’s experience of the working class was people like me, people who they assume educated themselves for financial advancement, and not because they might be just as smart as them. In this rhetoric the student from a low income family works four nights a week to ‘better themselves’, not because it’s that or the dole. As Mark Steel pointed out “when politicians who believe everyone is middle class see vast decaying housing estates, they must think someone’s having a giant dinner party with a Victorian theme”.

Corbyn may not be the son of Fred Dibnah that I have been praying to come and lead the Labour Party for over a decade; despite this he seems to know the working class exists. When it comes to dear Tony I do wonder if the concept passed him by altogether.

Labour Must Lead Britain Into a New European Age

This article was written in partnership with Nathaniel Butler Blondel, a Labour Party activist and student at the University of Glasgow who currently sits as the Secretary of Scottish Young Labour.

The Labour Party’s relationship with Europe has forever entailed parallel tendencies that have never been entirely clear to the electorate, or perhaps even to the party itself.

It was during Harold Wilson’s third government in 1975 that the bellicose Labour MP for Fife Central, Willie Hamilton scolded the Prime Minister on the issue of entry into Europe. “First we’re in, then we’re out…. It’s exactly like coitus-interruptus” as the house stumbled over themselves laughing one Tory MP cried “Withdraw!” – fortunately for us, Mr. Wilson stayed the course.

Despite the resounding Yes vote in that year’s referendum the issue of Europe remains one that interrupts Labour’s rhythm on the doorstep every year.

The mid 1970s were a time when prominent members of the cabinet including Tony Benn, and future leader Michael Foot campaigned for Britain to leave the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then. Little would they have imagined that four decades later one of their accidental protégés Jeremy Corbyn would sit atop the Labour throne, leading his party somewhat indifferently into the next opportunity to stick or twist on the grand table of Europe.

Thankfully any concern as to where Corbyn’s allegiances lie have been assuaged when he stated confidently in September:

An unlikely European champion. Will Jeremy Corbyn be a strong voice for the pro-EU bloc?

“We will make the case that membership of the European Union helps Britain to create jobs, secure growth, encourage investment and tackle the issues that cross borders – like climate change, terrorism, tax havens and the current refugee crisis.”

This is a position we can find no disagreement with, and one we look forward to campaigning strongly with the whole party on, to once and for all put an end to UKIP’s divisive rhetoric.

But what form can this campaign take, and are we as a party sleepwalking into one of the most important battles over jobs and conditions for British workers for decades?

Direct comparisons between this referendum and the previous are misplaced. The 1975 referendum primarily focused on the common market. Despite claims to the contrary the approaching referendum will be fought on two fronts; immigration and the EU’s actual utility in a globalised world – which ultimately means job creation.

Between 3- 4.5 million jobs in Britain are directly linked to exports to the EU and these exports account for around 45% of Britain’s total. Trade with the EU has fallen over the past few years – but if the value of exports are examined (and this is what those jobs rely on), it has risen year on year, on average at 5% annually since 1999. Furthermore, over 50% of Britain’s imports come from the EU – whilst the UK is currently running a trade deficit. Three out of our top five trading partners are in the EU – and the other two trade with the UK on the basis of a treaty negotiated as part of the EU.

To cut a long story short: millions of jobs rely on trade with the EU. Just under half of what we earn, and over half of what we buy, comes from the EU. We may not like globalisation, but those are the facts on the ground. There is no analysis which can avoid the fact that in the short term at least we are facing significant adverse economic effects if we choose to leave the other 27 member states behind.

There is a further concern here that Labour should be at the forefront of nationally, borrowing costs. Yesterday the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, stated that any UK exit from the EU (or even the realistic likelihood of it) would seriously threaten interest rate levels. The reason this is so worrying is simple, UK households are currently burdened with total debts higher than at any previous time in history. This is an issue that strikes home with Labour’s core vote who are often asset poor and debt laden. The UK’s relationship with our largest trading partners, namely other EU countries, is fundamental to the stability of our banking and business sectors – any existential threat to that (which an EU exit very much is) trading relationship may have severe consequences in the short term, especially in regards to external investment. This would further weaken the pound, thereby making overseas lenders charge us more, and in turn bump up interest rates for individual borrowers.

Despite what you might wish to believe about Labour or see as the historical nature of the party, from the day Michael Foot left office to the moment Jeremy Corbyn arrived and for a great deal of time before that, Labour was a social-democratic party. The European Union has continuously been a focal point of the social democratic project and thus membership of that union in every section of the party except various trade unions has been entirely non-controversial.

Given this fact, it should be a straight road to a united Labour campaign to remain in Europe – or so you would think. One of the aggravating technicalities of democracy is that you occasionally have to take heed of your vote, and on the issue of Europe (read specifically ‘immigration’) Labour’s vote is demographically and regionally divided.

Ed Miliband’s leadership never really convinced when it came to discussing immigration or Europe, and this revealed itself in May. Despite not conceding any seats to UKIP the vote for Nigel Farage’s party theoretically made the difference between Labour and the Tories in 57 seats. This effect was particularly pronounced in suburban seats in Northern England and the entire Midlands. Any ground campaign aimed at saving us from a Farage led European exit will have to seriously concern itself with why this key demographic moved away from Labour and more moderate Conservatism.

This was an issue adequately represented by Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham at the party conference in September:

“Freedom of movement has built the economic power of the big cities. But it has also made life harder in our poorest communities, where the rules have been exploited to undercut people’s wages, undermine their job security and create a race-to-the-bottom. Those same places get no extra funding to deal with the pressure that comes on primary schools, GP services and housing.”

Regardless of how obvious this argument seems to anyone left-leaning, in constituencies like Derby North and Bolton West it was one spoken of in hushed tones. Repeating this mistake could potentially turn the UK back into a solitary island in the North Atlantic, rather than a member of an imperfect, yet relatively successful union.

During the Labour leadership contest the issue of Europe was curiously muted. This belies a truth that many have failed to take into account, the EU does not enthuse anyone beyond those who vehemently wish to leave it. As such the Labour In campaign is to be an argument predicated on ambivalence at worst, and business rationale at best. Neither of these Labour do well. As such it was a wise move to appoint broadly popular Alan Johnson to lead the campaign. If there is one thing the Blairites did well, it was Europe, and if you had to pick the most likeable Blairite around Mr. Johnson would be a popular choice in most quarters.

Reasons to be fearful, the dull business face of the official campaign to Remain

However, the official campaign cross party campaign to Remain has thus far been underwhelming. The great mass of people in Britain are not plucky entrepreneurs nor do they travel frequently to the continent. Soft-Eurosceptics that could be won over are not even being targeted, because the whole campaign has singularly failed to mention immigration (sound familiar?). By omitting what makes Brexit so appealing to so many, the Remain campaign have shot themselves in the foot before the race has even begun. They have two choices: either argue for the positive effects of EU immigration, or argue that collective action through the EU to prevent wage depression can and will happen as part of a ‘reformed’ EU. People won’t forget immigration just because we fail to talk about it. No matter how many mugs we emblazon with our misguided intentions.

The rights afforded to workers in this country, guaranteed by the EU, are not Stuart Rose’s (leader of the cross party campaign to keep Britain in Europe) priority. Instead, the Remain campaign spends more time fawning over England’s nascent wine industry. It is run by individuals who are completely disconnected from ordinary people – and it shows. If we want to remain in the EU, Labour has a serious responsibility to take on the task, and make the case for the EU relatable and relevant to the lives of normal people. The sheer number of jobs under threat, and the rights at work which the EU provides should be a strong enough case – but it is a case you have to make. It will not simply occur to people.

The refugee crisis, combined with the attacks in Paris, have left Europhiles feeling uneasy. It is UKIP’s perfect cocktail, and appears to seriously undermine the argument that the EU makes us safer. We should not be afraid to challenge this line for the superficial nonsense that it is. Britain can be part of a pan-European plan to resettle refugees, or we can flounce out and pretend the problem will go away. Brexit does not mean we are raising the anchor and floating off – there is no escape from a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

Labour voters on the left who advocate an exit should realise that they are abdicating their responsibility in this tragedy. Unless that is, they seriously believe that a Tory government in the newly ‘independent’ UK will have a change of heart and throw open the doors to refugees?

The threat of terrorism is just as much of a homegrown problem as it is one emanating from Iraq and Syria. Within the EU, governments and regions can work together to coordinate a response, share information about suspects, and use the European Arrest Warrant to apprehend suspects who have escaped these shores. How would ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ protect us from our own citizens? We’ve got to tackle these arguments head on. Letting them go unanswered, particularly when they appeal to emotion rather than reality is conceding the point. Surely this is where we as a Labour party should be?

Sadly there is an inevitability to Cameron’s meandering demands regarding Europe. Ever since the fait accompli of the Common Fisheries Policy and other such bugbears were sealed during the Heath administration there has been a shadow upon the Tory soul regarding negotiations with Europe. UKIP could not exist today without this consternation at the heart business minded ‘patriotic’ Britain. This is a particularly difficult space for Labour to fill, especially given their current leadership is one defined by relative social and economic radicalism and as such notions of business and trade sovereignty are not included in their lexicon.

Just your cheeky neighbourhood xenophobe. Nigel Farage’s reputation rests on the result. 

Labour will inevitably have to accept that their role in this fight is to lead the charge against the social and economic myopia of leaving Europe.

If we have learned anything from the Scottish independence referendum it is this: economics might win the day, but economics without strongly argued for social and cultural foundations will leave you worryingly exposed to an opponent surging in the minds of more frequently ignored communities. There can be no room for complacency within the Labour ranks. We must treat this in the same way we would treat a general election (though….actually win it, that bit is important).

Undoubtedly the European Union debate contains multitudes that cannot be dealt with here, but in the end it is a simple consideration for the Labour movement. Do we continue to add our voice to reformist choruses within a wider social collective and maintain jobs for our core vote, or do we appease the right and immigration fear mongers – laying waste to the structure which brought us maternity leave, working time directives, and human rights?

It is our position that a Labour Party which fails to be the party of international cooperation, ultimately ceases to be a party of the working class. Whether voters come to agree with us entirely rests on the shoulders of our party, and those allies we will meet along the way.

Nathaniel Butler Blondel and Seán Duffy